It always circles back to “Clerks” for Kevin Smith.
Jersey’s DIY indie filmmaker may have taken his shots at leaving Jay and Silent Bob and Dante and Randal et al. But those guys and that New Jersey convenience store they inhabit are his safe space. They’re what made him a nerd culture icon and kept him in the public eye when the non “Clerks” content let him down, as it often did.
But some of us got the warm fuzzies for the “final” Jackass movie, which showed us those once-young pranksters hitting 50, getting old and taking it in the ‘nads one more time in a stupidly funny picture that welcomed a COVID-weary nation back to the multiplex.
And that’s kind of the goal of “Clerks III,” a nostalgic wallow in Smith’s Quick Stop-driven career and the motley crew of Jersey crudes who populate the Smithverse.
Smith returns to the scene of the comic crime, still home to the characters that tickled us so back in 1994, for an unfunny, sentimental visit that pretty much kills this “franchise” off — literally.
The widowed Dante (Brian O’Halloran) now co-owns the local Quick Stop with big-talking, swaggering loser Randal (Jeff Anderson). The video store next door long ago shuttered, its “VHS and Nintendo Rentals” sign papered over with “THC.” But inside, videotapes line the shelves as if the place has been declared a state historic site.
The guys are still playing rooftop boot-hockey, still allowing drug dealers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) to peddle their wares out front.
Everybody’s deep-dive into “Star Wars” minutia is ongoing. And they’re still attempting the same alliterative put-downs — “Elon Muskrat,” “Motley Crewneck.”
It’s in the middle of one of those colorless putdown rants aimed at their employee, Elias (Trevor Fehrman), who’s now into “Christian crypto,” that Randal faces “The Widowmaker.” He has a heart attack, which he survives. His life-changing epiphany?
“I’m gonna make a MOVIE about my life!”
He’ll call it “Inconvenienced,” and as it shakes out, Randal and Dante will play themselves and others will show up and say and perform all the goofy nonsense they’ve witnessed and heard from customers as “clerks” for three decades.
Silent Bob will be their DP, who speaks just long enough to give a diatribe on the merits of shooting in black and white.
This could be fun, in a weary “meta” sort of way.
But unlike the lowdown, grungy and quippy “Clerks,” “Clerks III” — shot in color — has the look of a self-distributed Youtube sitcom pilot. With about as many laughs.
Everybody looks pretty well-preserved, all things considered — thinning hair dyed, plenty of makeup. Smith, 52, looks tanned and as fit as he’s ever been.
The Quick Stop blouses are new and freshly-pressed, making the store and the characters within in it look bland and unlived in. Where’s the mileage?
In the years since “Clerks,” writer-director Smith had a heart attack, and other cast members had addiction issues and health scares. There’s a lot of disappointment built into this movie, in front of and behind the camera. And that just isn’t amusing.
Smith folds mortality, grief and regret into the story to give it depth, but the strain of being glib about those elements shows. Scene after scene plays out without so much as a chuckle.
Some of what weighs on the picture is how the rest of the world has shifted around this 1994 bubble of cute and cutting edge “Jersey style.”
In the ensuing decades, weed has largely been legalized and the culture has coarsened in step with those crude, cursing “Clerks.”
Yes, the first words in this sequel begin with an “f” and end with “you.” We all talk like that now.
The “donkey” act bits and sexual vulgarisms don’t just feel played-out. They feel old.
Still, a lot of friends agreed to do cameos. Amy Sedaris is a goofy-but-not-funny surgeon, Justin Long is a less-funny tight-lipped nurse, with Kate Micucci, Bobby Moynihan, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Mr. Sarah Michelle — Freddie Prinze, Jr. — Fred Armisen, Danny Trejo and Ben Affleck checking in. None of them elicit more than a grin.
But an hour into the film, things threaten — briefly — to improve. Jay and Silent Bob are set to recreate their boom-box dance moment. But Jay’s a literalist when it comes to “dancing like no one’s watching.” Everybody has to leave the set as Silent Bob plays Jefferson Starship’s “Find Your Way Back” and the duo channel their pre-AARP card-in-the-mail selves, if only for a moment.
The movie starts to feel sweet. Bringing back Dante’s old loves — the irritable, still-living exes (Marilyn Ghigliotti and Jennifer Schwalbach Smith) — and the one who died (Rosario Dawson, acting in a better movie than the one surrounding her) — plays.
But that warm moment is fleeting and “Clerks III” continues its slog to the finish, an edgy comedy that’s lost its edge, a franchise whose expiration date passed long ago.
Rating: R, lots and lots of profanity, drug use
Cast: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Trevor Fehrman, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith and Rosario Dawson
Credits: Scripted and directed by Kevin Smith. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:40